Rancher Jay Doan, pictured, at his Black Leg Ranch in North Dakota has devised ways to keep the prairie surrounding the family ranch intact. (Shawn Connell/ Rolling Plains Adventures)

Jerry Doan’s great-great-grandfather came down from Canada to establish a 160-acre homestead here in 1882, when the Dakotas were a territory. The 10,000-acre Black Leg Ranch now hosts a hunting and guest-lodge operation, as well as 3,000 head of cattle during the summer months.

But even as Doan and his family have devised ways to keep the prairie surrounding the original homestead intact, some of their neighbors are charting a different path, carving up their ranches for cropland.

One rancher broke up “every acre of his pasture,” Doan said. “He said: ‘I’m getting a lot of money. I’m getting some good corn yields here. Why don’t you do it?’ ”

While North Dakota’s oil bonanza has garnered national attention, its farming boom is transforming the state’s landscape just as dramatically. Nebraska and four other states in the Great Plains prairie pothole region — called that because of its thousands of shallow wetlands — lost 1.3 million acres of grasslands between 2006 and 2011, according to a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The region is being transformed “at a rate and scale not seen since the Dust Bowl,” said Eric Lindstrom, government affairs representative for Ducks Unlimited, a wetlands-conservation group.

Lindstrom and other wildlife advocates are concerned because a range of animals, including waterfowl, several grouse species, mule deer and even bees, need abundant grasslands and wetlands to thrive. Three-quarters of the ducks hunted in the United States come from the prairie pothole region, while imperiled species, from the lesser prairie chicken to the greater sage grouse, depend on this habitat to survive.

But ranchers and farmers are increasingly opting out of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays landowners not to develop parts of their property for 15 years. Its level of compensation — about $40 an acre — can’t compete with the $60 or $65 an acre owners can get for renting their land for crops.

Prices for corn, soybeans and other crops have soared in recent years because of a mix of factors, including advanced farming technology, a federal ethanol mandate that consumes about a third of the nation’s corn and Chinese demand for soybeans.

In the farm bill — whose extension is set to expire Sept. 30 — the Senate is trying to include provisions that would penalize farmers who convert native prairie to cropland or wetlands, or who farm on highly erodible land without a conservation plan. Between 1985 and 1996, the farm bill had provisions under which farmers who tilled highly erodible lands without a conservation plan or drained wetlands to plant crops risked losing their federal crop insurance subsidy.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank D. Lucas (R-
Okla.) opposed putting the restrictions back in during House consideration of the bill. In a statement, he said that “in the spirit of compromise” he accepted a narrower provision that would impose penalties on prairie conversion in portions of five states: Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.

The farm bill remains in limbo, and lawmakers may have to adopt another short-term extension before negotiating a long-term authorization bill.

Tim Kizer, an agriculture consultant for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a group for hunters and anglers, said it makes sense that taxpayers would ask farmers to adopt a handful of conservation practices in exchange for federal support.

“The notion is, we’ll give you this money, but there are some basic rules you have to follow,” said Kizer, part of a rice-farming family in Arkansas.

North Dakota Farm Bureau President Doyle Johannes said his members are “very much opposed to tying crop insurance to the conservation movement,” since they already face the challenge that wet conditions made a quarter of the state’s land unplantable in 2011 and 17 percent unplantable in 2012.

“We don’t have to be able to drain the whole country, but we should be able to manage it,” Johannes said.

Dwayne Dekrey, deputy director of North Dakota’s Game and Fish Department, said CRP holdings have dropped from 3.4 million acres in 2006 to 1.7 million acres today, and they are projected to decline to 600,000 acres by 2017.

“We are seeing an 80 percent loss of habitat for some of our game and wildlife species,” Dekrey said. “The commodity prices have skewed the world so much, we’re kind of flailing around like everybody else, just seeing how we can maintain this.”

Johannes said that although farmers are opting out of the federal program, the estimates of crop conversion are exaggerated. “There wouldn’t be a piece of prairie or grassland left if what they had been saying was true,” he said.

Buying land to set it aside for conservation is difficult to do in North Dakota because of its unusual real estate laws. In response to a controversy three decades ago concerning the treatment of wetlands by the federal government, any outside group wanting to buy land for conservation purposes must win the governor’s approval.

“The citizens of North Dakota are going to have to decide how much prairie they want,” Dekrey said. When it comes to the uptick in development, he added, “The average North Dakotan, the majority so far, have not been calling to slow it down.”

To counter this trend, a coalition of environmental and sportsmen groups has been working with the region’s landowners and academics to pursue ranching and farming practices that protect native grasses and wetlands.

Lyle Perman raises cattle as well as crops on his Rock Hills Ranch in Lowry, S.D. Decades ago he converted grassland and drained ditches with explosives. “Today, we know better,” he said. Perman, who operates his ranch along with his son and daughter-in-law, moves his cattle 100 times a year to mimic the pattern of the buffalo herds that used to roam the area.

Perman also raises bees to make sure his alfalfa gets pollinated and runs a hunting operation on site. Intact grassland is as essential for the wildlife his clients hunt as it is for the cows that graze on his property. “I’ve never seen a mule deer in a plowed field,” he said.

Doan said that the similar strategies he has used — moving his cattle frequently, preserving the native grass that draws birds and ungulates — has paid dividends. “We’ve seen tremendous improvements in the land and the landscape,” he said.

Standing on the deck of his remodeled Sears and Roebuck kit home shipped by rail to Britton, N.D., in the early 1900s, Doan said he understands why the soil is better off left undisturbed. Tiny creatures such as nematodes can enrich the soil, producing a better pasture and reducing water runoff.

“This is fragile soil in this country,” Doan said. “I’ve got an agricultural degree, but they never taught us about that in college.”